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Friday, Nov 2, 2007


For the weekend of 02 November, here are the films in focus:


American Gangster [rating: 8]


American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details.

Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters – at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?  read full review…


Bee Movie [rating: 7]


While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp.

While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed. read full review…


Wristcutters: A Love Story [rating: 7]


Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience.

Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90 minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands. read full review…


Martian Child [rating: 5]


Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics.

Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced – both personal and social – were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges. read full review…


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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

MARTIAN CHILD (dir. Menno Meyjes)


Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced—both personal and social—were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could.  He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges.


After the death of his beloved wife, a successful sci-fi author named David finds himself in a major funk. It’s been a couple years, but he remains locked in a spiral of depression that has produced a bad case of writer’s block. Problem is, his pushy agent has promised their publisher a sequel to his recent bestseller. Adding fuel to his ‘feel bad’ fire, a local adoption agency is calling, wondering if he’s still interested in the adoption he had planned with his late partner. After a series of psychological slides, David meets Dennis, an odd little boy who believes he’s from Mars. Hiding in a box to avoid the sun, the child states, matter of factly, that he is on a mission to study humans and must complete it before being called ‘home’. David is initially taken aback. He’s sure he can’t handle such an unusual and needy kid. But as they begin to bond, the scribe realizes that Dennis is the perfect boy for him. He too felt like an outcast when he was young, and while the ersatz ET may be taking it to an extreme, David feels a solid, loving bond. Now he has to show the rest of the world the same.


Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics. It gives John Cusack a role that fits his pleasant if perplexed persona expertly, a supporting cast that sets off his performance well, and an unusual narrative conceit—a kid who thinks he’s an alien—to make its rather obvious points. As a foster child, shuttled from home to home like an easily returnable catalog item, little Dennis has every right to feel displaced and disconnected. But by using such an extreme illustration of this concept, the movie sets itself up to fail. Unless the boy is really from another planet, which itself reeks of narrative desperation, you end up with a clichéd conceit that’s predictable from the moment we see him onscreen. It will require extra smart writing and superbly skilled direction to make this potentially implosive mix work. Sadly, Menno Meyjes and his pair of novice scribes can’t deliver on said challenge.


There are moments when this movie feels like an underage version of Rain Man, Dennis driven in 15 different directions by the made-up mandates in his head. This is especially true of the mandatory custody hearing where, in order to stay with David, our anxious little boy simple regurgitates maxims his wannabe dad delivered several scenes before. We’re supposed to find it clever. In fact, it’s slightly distressing. If Dennis is only capable of communicating via the rote repetition of things he barely understands, what is going to happen if he’s never fully “cured”. Martian Child really never takes a stand on the kid’s obvious psychological issues. It merely treats them as a slightly unsavory eccentricity and leaves it at that. Even worse, David is an enabler of the worst kind, caring more for love substitute than the object of said affection. It’s only when he ‘accidentally’ kisses costar Amanda Peet that we recognize he may actually try to help the boy.


Dennis does remain the film’s main pitfall. Precociousness, by its very nature, is equally ingratiating and aggravating. There’s simply a very fine line between bewitching and beating on the brat, so you have to be careful how you approach said subject. Child actor Bobby Coleman plays his interplanetary prodigy in a lilting, feather light whisper that’s supposed to suggest fragility, but really reads as scarred and scared. With a face full of sunblock and ruby red lips jutting out from behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, he’s a pre-teen Roger Smith impersonator. His highly unusual quirks—taking photos of people, collecting artifacts from their lives (otherwise known as stealing), and fretting to the point of breakdown over idle events—aren’t really endearing. In fact, the way he holds onto them can be downright disturbing. The boy has clearly lost his grip on reality, and yet Martian Child finds this cutesy. If anything, it’s cloying.


Cusack comes across much better, if equally deprived. Substituting grief for homosexuality is a ruse that’s almost unforgiveable. In fact, it removes a crucial theme about tolerance that could have been effectively explored. Since the whole film is really focused on learning to love someone despite their implied social flaws, divesting the story of such subject matter smacks of PC thuggery. Even worse, it excises a mandatory parallel between Dennis and his Dad. Whose separation from the real world is more understandable—a grieving man (two years and counting) or a gay man? One is three hanky manipulation. The other is a Red State rallying cry.  By failing to have the nerve to address Gerrold’s preference, Martian Child makes a calculated artistic decision. It’s possible the filmmakers didn’t want to cloud the connection between parent and child by mucking things up with sexuality. An enlightened viewer can’t help but view the choice in less than noble terms. 


Of course, this isn’t the only problem the production faced. Martian Child is one of those ‘on the shelf’ specials that went through massive reshoots when the ending tested less than positively. Even then, it took almost another year before the movie made it into theaters. Clearly, the focus groups were less than impressed with the results. If you don’t mind your family drama on the decidedly ‘melo’ side, if you couldn’t care less about the real story behind this superbly saccharine schmaltz, if all you require of your entertainment is simply sketched characters, a formulaic set of obstacles, and a good cry at the end, then this film clearly delivers. Those wanting insight into the issues facing adoptive parents, especially when dealing with emotionally damaged juveniles, need to look elsewhere. This isn’t Child of Rage after all—something the movie itself makes us well aware of.



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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY (dir. Goran Dukic)


Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90-minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands.


After carefully cleaning his room and organizing his affairs, Zia takes a razor to his wrists. His girlfriend has left him, and his life seems extra pointless. Unfortunately, the supposed finality of his desperation leads to an afterlife way station where other suicides spend eternity toiling away at meaningless jobs. Lucky enough to befriend an entire Russian family, Zia spends his days making pizza and wondering what went wrong. When he learns that his gal pal offed herself as well, he decides to go on a journey to find her. Corralling his Ruskie rock star friend Eugene into driving him, they head off onto a nameless road. Along the way they pick up Mikal, a recent arrival who claims she’s been unfairly brought to this dimension. She’s looking for the PICs—the People in Charge—to right the wrong. Eventually, they wind up at a magical commune run by Kneller…and smack dab into the middle of a battle with a false Messiah who wants dominion over the perplexed populace. 


Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience. Part sci-fi, part emo shoe gazing, it’s the perfect companion piece for the cynical, post-millennial Gen-“?” crowd. Anyone whose lived more than, say, 25 years on and in the real world known as planet Earth will have a hard time relating to the aimless romanticism presented, and there are aspects of writer/director Dukic’s vision that run head long into aggravating artistic dead-ends, but when the filmmaker is motoring, the journey is a joy to behold.  By setting up his own unique universe, inventing rules that help supplement and support the points he’s making, he finds a way to take troubling subject matter and make it open and inviting.. This doesn’t mean everyone will get it, but if you pay close enough attention, you can see the message hiding among the deadpan performances and grim gray landscapes.


While the notion that suicide leads to a post-existence world of mindless bureaucratic doldrums has been done before (Beetlejuice more or less covered that topic), Dukic’s does offer up something that smacks of originality. This button down, going nowhere fast ante-existence definitely reeks of the way we view our current career choices, but by adding the logistically limiting factor of self-destruction, we get a much narrower view of said rat race. As part of his particular philosophy, Dukic’s doesn’t have many problems with conformity. All throughout Wristcutters, we see the status quo supported and celebrated—that is, until it becomes a bit like brainwashing. Indeed, the amazingly mixed message offered could be best described as “learn how to be yourself, so that you can better assimilate into a world overwrought with such individualized perceptions.” Neat.


This is best personified by Eugene. While he definitely diddles to his own drummer, the former frontman for a failed Euro-Czech fusion band believes in tradition. That’s why his whole family wound up in Wristcutters’ weird realm. They just couldn’t imagine a life without each other. Zia, on the other hand, struggles against such ideals. For him, parents are a pitfall, someone you have to answer for and explain your purpose to. When he meets Mikal, he constantly chides her desire to change her lot in (after)life. Yet he’s after his ex-girlfriend, hoping to rekindle in this plane the connections he created in the real world. There are some sobering, insightful conversations about these topics sprinkled across Wristcutters’ road movie moxie. It helps get us over some of the film’s more bonkers, blank verse variables.


Unlike other films of this type, where specific rules and regulations are used as a foundation for their satire/social commentary, Dukic appears to be making much of this up as he goes along. While it is based on a short story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters tends to wander off into its own insular parallels. When we finally meet up with Kneller and his magic commune, we wonder why the movie took us here. While on the move, the narrative was taking us along for the ride. But the minute we see the cult buster laying prone in the middle of the road (expertly played by musician turned madman, Tom Waits) he distracts us from the other character’s purpose. And then the whole third act mirrors the same cinematic switcheroo. We want to see what happens to Zia, Eugene, and Mikal. The added influence of Kneller’s crusade, a failed Jim Jones, and his psycho sect seem widely out of place—even if the ending tries to divine a purpose to it all.


Thankfully, whenever we feel flummoxed, the actors step up and deliver some creative comfort. Though he still resembles his Almost Famous teenage persona, Patrick Fugit fills out the angst driven needs of Zia quite nicely. He’s never too morose, and tends to equalize his ennui with a cutting sense of humor. Shannyn Sossamon, on the other hand, has an eerie, otherworldly quality that makes her Mikal seem that much more out of place. While she tends to play her scenes with a kind of ballsy, no bullshit attitude, we can sense there is something really troubling inside her. For the role of the heavily accented Eugene, Tallahassee native Shea Whigham gets good and lost. From the Eastern Bloc hairdo to the tongue tied way of speaking, he never once delivers a false note. And then there’s Waits. Using his magnificent rasp for all its inherent wisdom and indulgence, he turns a nothing part into something quite solid.


As for Dukic, he deserves some legitimate praise along with the clear criticisms. Maintaining such a surreal cinematic place for an entire motion picture takes talent, and even when he slips and lets the surface show, he manages to clear things up quite nicely. Like dozens of stories that came before, this movie does speak to a demo driven underground and dismissed for their lack of commitment and agenda. So is there any argument as to why an aimless tale of a directionless dude traveling along an inexact landscape wouldn’t resonate with post-university pawns? Wristcutters is practically reading their mind. Indeed, if you are under 30 and free from the adult reality tenets that tie one down, this film will feel like a revelation. Others already jaded might not find the same connection. Wristcutters: A Love Story is definitely bold and audacious—and avoids killing itself in the process.



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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

BEE MOVIE (dir. Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith)


While it may seem like blasphemy to say it, the comedic allure of Jerry Seinfeld remains elusive to some of us. As a stand-up, he was merely acceptable, the kind of observational whiner that’s become something of a satiric spoof all its own. His self-named sitcom, the often described “show about nothing”, has gone from must-see TV to a Borat level of hindsight marginalizing. Even his post-boob tube work has been lamentably unsatisfactory, failing to give fans and those who never bought into the hype the brazen witticisms they once loved. Now the one time small screen icon is making the leap to silver, albeit in an anthropomorphized, CGI form. Playing the title insect in Dreamworks’ Bee Movie, he hopes to draw a more sophisticated crowd to what has been, traditionally, kid-oriented fair. He may actually succeed.


After graduating from bee college, young drone Barry B. Benson and his cousin Adam Flayman can’t wait to get a job in the hive’s honey manufacturing concern. But when they learn that the career they choose will be the one they have for their whole life, Barry balks. Traveling with the Pollenjocks who work outside among the flowers, our hero gets his first taste of what it’s like in the real world. Of course, there are specific rules if a bee finds themselves among humans. Never talk to people, and never sting them. Both missteps could be fatal. When he’s almost killed by a lunkheaded yuppie named Ken, Barry is saved by Vanessa, a good natured florist. Violating the mandates of the colony, the little bug strikes up a friendship with the attractive young girl, and it’s not long before the pair is hanging out, sharing insights into their species. But when Barry learns that humans eat honey, and that his fellow insects are enslaved to make the succulent elixir, he becomes furious. In order to save his kind’s byproduct, he does the only thing a tiny pest can – he sues the honey companies in court.


While never as clever as it thinks it is, and lacking the internal logic that makes a Pixar project hum with indescribable brilliance, Bee Movie is still a witty, imaginative romp. It offers Jerry Seinfeld in “trying too hard mode” and a wealth of talent being patently underutilized. Unlike other CGI cartoons that rely on stunt casting to give its characters inferred life, Bee Movie simply lets actors do their job, with such noted names as Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, and Matthew Broderick accomplishing what they can. Sure, there are moments of abject obviousness, as when the bullying, overbearing and incredibly obese lawyer starts speaking with…John Goodman’s voice, and nothing can hide Renee Zellweger’s noxious, nasal bleat (she’s a real weak link here as the human Vanessa). But any film that gets Sting to make fun of his nom deplume, or Ray Liotta to riff on his tripwire reputation, can’t be all bad.


Actually, Bee Movie is a lot like Antz except with a younger multi-millionaire mensch substituting for Woody Allen. There is the same unexceptional imagineering, the individuals behind the scenes thinking that turning nature into something corporate and mechanized means fresh and novel. As the various honey-based conglomerate logos spin by, as we see the hive as some sort of wacked out widget production palace (complete with bugs who collect the last drop of sweet stuff from the vats) the slightly sloppy shortcutting shows through. When dreams and closet dwelling creatures were explained in the masterful Monsters Inc. you never got the impression that the warehouse of doors was a half-baked notion. But the sticky amber liquid comes to represent so much in Bee Movie that the lack of magic tends to take away from the premise. Indeed, the first 20 minutes more or less tread nectar, waiting for Seinfeld’s Barry to finally fly outdoors.


Once our yellow and black hero interacts with Vanessa and begins to learn the ways of humans and the world outside the hive, Bee Movie begins to click. Granted, such surreal setpieces as a trial, an airplane emergency, and a decimated Central Park are hardly the stuff of animated hilarity, but props should be given to Seinfeld and the other writers for taking the genre in a different, more grown up direction. While it can’t match what Brad Bird has done with a similar, maturing storytelling style (as witnessed by the brilliant Incredibles and Ratatouille), Bee Movie is better than the lame brained, pop culture cribbing of Shrek. In fact, unlike the entire joke-a-thon style of the overly busy Fox CG films, there are moments of quiet elegance and sly satire here.


Of course, not everything works. Some of the more subtle jabs will fly over the heads of wee ones (the whole concept of Barry’s parents fretting over Vanessa being “Bee-ish”, the Larry King parody) and there are numerous gags that just don’t work. In fact, a good percentage of Bee Movie is not what one would call laugh out loud funny. Instead, like much of what Seinfeld represents, there is a thinking man’s level of wit here that keeps the snickers at arms length. We get what the film is driving at, and where it hopes to land its punchlines, but when an obvious Graduate riff simply dries up and blows away, we can sense a demographically concerned focus group mentality at play. Sitcom success is one thing. For Seinfeld to click as a cartoon character, there’s a whole other level of mainstream acceptance that has to go on – and Bee Movie doesn’t mess up the marketing.


And then there are elements that make no sense at all, at least from a humor standpoint. Someone needs to get Patrick Warburton a case of Decaf, stat. He reads every line of his spurned human paramour Ken as a far more hyper version of his paralyzed cop character Joe Swanson on Family Guy. He literally has no nuance to his shriek and shout performance. Chris Rock is also hampered by the PG parameter he’s locked into. When he’s talking about how hated mosquitoes are (being one of the bug’s himself), you keep waiting for the rant to go blue. Instead, it’s stifled, left incomplete and lagging behind other sequences in the film. While the action is anarchic, perfect for the ADD driven sugar frosted seat fillers, we loose much of the complexity the animators have attached to the NYC backdrop, and there’s no sense of awe-inspiring artistry here. Dreamworks isn’t making a film for the ages. This is perfectly prepared product, specifically finessed to increase shelf life and stimulate DVD revenue.


Indeed, while it will guarantee swift ticket sales and long lasting box office legs, Bee Movie is hardly what you’d call a classic. It offers its own slightly askew take on the anthropomorphic creature cartoon and frequently trips on its way down said path, but when all it said and done, it’s inoffensive and fairly entertaining. Some will say they expected more from their former small screen God and argue that the movie marginalizes his fairly obvious genius. Others knew he was a man of limited skills all along. No matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, Bee Movie is likely to disappoint. It’s not as awful as you think. It’s also not as good.



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Friday, Nov 2, 2007

AMERICAN GANGSTER (dir. Ridley Scott)


Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters—at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?


Apparently, screenwriter Steve Zaillian and director Ridley Scott seem to think so. They’ve taken the story of Harlem drug king Frank Lucas and turned it—and him—into a symbol of pre-‘70s smarts and racially irrelevant success. Then they parallel it with the story of an honest cop vowing to clean up the streets, along with his fellow crooked officers. Add Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as the leads and the results speak or themselves. Or at least they try too. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, and missing many of the detail that turns such cops and robbers sagas into glorified Greek tragedies, American Gangster is polished filmmaking that frequently misses the inherent spectacle of the story it’s telling. Then it discovers there was very little scope to begin with.


When we first meet Lucas, he’s a henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the man’s untimely death, the apprentice vows to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade H are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.


It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from North Carolina to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads. 


American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details. There is not much more to Frank Lucas than honor among heroin dealers, and Ritchie Roberts is the only incorruptible lawman in all of New York proper. Together, they are the karmic balance of good vs. evil set within a city drowning in dope. Granted, we learn that Lucas is as cold blooded as they come, killing rivals in broad daylight. And Roberts is a womanizing heel, incapable of holding onto the principles in his private life that he cherishes in public. So we get some sort of dimension in how the characters are portrayed. But unlike films such as Goodfellas, Scarface, and the Godfather saga, American Gangster functions on a level outside of crime. Sure, the smack trade is part and parcel of the narrative, but it’s the men, not the setup of the syndicate, that really matters.


Indeed, this is perhaps the most overblown character study ever committed to film. At nearly 150 mins, Scott can’t stop expanding the personality playing field. Lucas has six other siblings and each one gets his moment in the emblematic sun. Both his mother and his Puerto Rican beauty queen wife have their own sequences of self-righteous indignation. On Roberts side, we find his unhappy, soon to be ex, a woman who responds to all interpersonal disappointment by dropping names of the mobsters her partner is pals with. Then there’s the soon to be junkie colleague who looks like Serpico crossed with Superfly. You just know he’s going to get a dramatic send-off. Scott also shows us the street level recruits who make up Roberts newly formed federal task force. By the time he’s done, we expect American Gangster to give us the backstory on every waitress, bouncer, and soul singer we see.


The morals are also misplaced here. Lucas is a scum sucking dope peddler, a man systematically addicting and killing his own people in the name of free enterprise and sticking it to the “white man”. Frankly, racist Italians giving blacks a means of self destruction makes a whole lot more sense—at least from an unenlightened, ‘60s/’70s standpoint—than a smooth talking, educated brother. Lucas’ motives are never explained save for a single speech where he indicates a desire to do for himself and his family. Great, and apparently, it doesn’t matter that all of Harlem is strung out as a result. Even worse, when we get to the last act confrontation with authorities, Lucas stands his ground—that is, until a massive jail sentence is dangled in front of his face. Then he instantaneously turns snitch—but since he’s ratting on dirty cops and underworld crime lords, who cares… right?


As a result, American Gangster goes more than a bit cockeyed once in a while. When Roberts turns over nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills (standard operating procedure at the time would have been to pocket the loot), he becomes the pariah of the department. Yet we’re supposed to infer why his fellow officers hate him—something about rubbing their nose in their petty, obvious bribery. Similarly, Lucas’ violent outbursts are meant to marginalize his suave and debonair demeanor. But you’re dealing with Denzel Washington here, an emblematic figure who can make baby rape seem cool. In fact, it’s so hard to paint either character in a corruptible light that when Scott assembles a Thanksgiving Day montage highlighting the horrors of Harlem, it plays like disconnected blight dragging us away from the real picture at hand. For as gaudy and gratuitous as they were, films like Scarface and The Godfather never forgot they were dealing with killers. This may be the first mob movie that turns its villains into viable vehicles for underhanded respect.


In fact, all of American Gangster plays like a perfectly formed post-millennial pastiche of the Playstation Generation’s greatest imagined gangland hits. It readily recalls every Scorsese-like step into the realm of such dark, strictly business realities and underlying urban decay. While set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the look is less dated and more fashion model post-modern. There is a swagger that the story fails to fully earn, and a matter of fact quality that underlines the story’s inherent superficiality.


Intriguingly enough, there is a documentary out currently entitled Mr. Untouchable. It deals with the exact same facts, except this time, we learn the lessons of Harlem’s decline into heroin from fellow dealer Nicky Barnes. Said film features details American Gangster skims over (why the drug cutting gals are naked, the Italians ultimate aims) while making a case for Barnes as everything Lucas is portrayed as. It’s a compelling argument, one that Ridley Scott and his A-list almost-epic fails to fully embrace. American Gangster is a very good movie. Somehow, one senses, it could have been grand.




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